Guide for decision-making regarding pet euthanasia

In our homes today, pets are more than just pets, they are members of the family.  The strong emotional bond we share with our pets brings great comfort and companionship to our lives.  This makes the decision regarding euthanasia an extremely painful one.  The following information is to help you with this very important, yet difficult, decision.  The information presented is in NO way designed to make this decision for you, but is intended to bring up several important points to consider so that you can make the best decision possible for you and your special friend.

“How will I know when it is time?”  This is a frequently asked question and one that you may ultimately need to answer.  While your veterinarian can provide you with as much medical information and prognostics as possible, the decision of whether or not your pet’s life should be humanely ended is YOUR decision.  You know your pet best and enjoy a very strong attachment to your animal.  You are the one who will know when it is time.  This can be an extremely taxing time with several factors to consider, it may be difficult to know if you are making the “right” decision.  Remember that there is no well-defined “right” or “wrong” answer when it comes to this topic.  It is critical that YOU are comfortable with the decision concerning what to do for your pet. 

If you reach the decision that euthanasia is the best way for you to help your special friend, it can be very helpful to do as much planning and preparation as possible prior to the actual event.  It is often easier to consider your options and know your preferences before the time comes.  Please discuss any decisions you are uncertain about with your Veterinarian, or veterinary staff.

When You Learn of Your Pet’s Serious Illness

When your pet is diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness, you may feel a wide variety of intense emotions that might seem overwhelming at times.  Such emotions frequently include feelings of shock, disbelief, confusion, fear, sadness, anger, guilt, or helplessness.  While these emotions are normal and understandable responses, they can make it difficult to act and behave in ways you normally do.

You may experience stages of “anticipatory grief”, or grieving that occurs prior to the actual loss of your special friend.  One of the most common feelings experienced during this time is an increase in anxiety, which often accelerates as the time of death draws closer.  When there is anticipation of death, it is common for people to mentally “rehearse” the event and its aftermath. This is referred to as the “work of worry” and, when used in appropriate ways, can play an important role in a person’s overall ability to cope.  If too much time is engaged in worrying, however, a person may emotionally withdraw from their feelings.  Other people may move too close to their dying pet in an attempt to rid themselves of feelings of guilt and loss.  One of the hallmark characteristics of a person moving too close to their pet is the desire or need to overmanage the animal’s medical care.

If a person moves beyond these feelings of anxiety, the time preceding the pet’s death can be utilized very effectively and meaningfully and can have an important impact on subsequent grief management.  This time can be used to express love and appreciation to your pet.  People often need encouragement or permission to reveal their intense feelings, as even the anticipation of doing so can be overwhelming.  Anticipatory grief is an experience best handled in cooperation with others, with support and understanding by all.

At times you may feel that others do not understand your strong emotional attachment to your pet and that they may think unfavorably of you because of this attachment.  Understand that the bond you share with your pet IS normal, for he or she is part of your family.  Being comfortable with these feelings is important as you face the difficult decisions that are to come.

Here are some things that you may find helpful as you approach the days and weeks to come:

  • Write things down – When you receive a large volume of medical information and have many questions, it can be difficult to remember everything.  Listing questions and concerns on paper may help you keep things straight.  Be sure to discuss your concerns with your veterinarian.
  • Seek support – Talk to others who understand the relationship you share with your pet.  Being with others who know what your pet means to you can be extremely helpful.  Talk to family members or others who may want to be involved in the decisions concerning your pet’s care.  If children are involved, it is very important to include them in discussions and decision making regarding the treatment and care of your pet.
  • Take care of yourself – Helping a pet through a serious illness can be very stressful and tiring; you may focus so much of your energy on your pet that you neglect yourself and your health.  This can lead to additional stress and may even result in you becoming ill.  Be certain that you are caring for yourself as well as your pet.
  • Think about quality of life – You know your pet best and are the one who needs to decide what constitutes a good quality of life for him or her.  Think about what is important for you and your pet and write it down.  Things to consider include your pet’s ability to engage in daily routines, to interact with you, and to be “who he or she is”.  The answers to these questions will be very different for every animal and owner.  Because you love your pet and want to do what is best, your feelings are important.  Think about the weeks or months ahead and decide what will be important to you.
  • Be there for your special friend – While this is a difficult time for you, it is also a time of uncertainty for your pet.  Spend time with your pet.  Show your pet how much you love him/her. 

When preparing for your pet’s euthanasia, it is helpful to:

  • Learn about the actual euthanasia procedure.
  • Determine if you and any member of your family would like to be present for the actual procedure.  If not, would you like to see your pet after the euthanasia procedure has been completed?
  • Plan the logistical details… When should it take place?  Where should it take place?  How will you care for your pet’s body after euthanasia?  If you have your pet’s body cremated, do you want the cremains returned to you?
  • Think about how you want to say good-bye to and/or memorialize your pet.

Memorializing your loved companion animal can be a very important part of your grieving process.  Listed below are a few ideas.  Some may not feel right for you or your family, while others may be very helpful.

  • Make a clay impression of your pet’s paw.  Inscribe with your pet’s name, birthday, or any other message.
  • Keep pet tags.  Tags can be placed on your key ring so that you will always have the memory of your special pet with you.
  • Send “In Memory” cards to friends and family members who knew your pet.  Include a special picture.
  • Collect pet’s collars, tags, bowls, etc., and place them in a special place.
  • Scatter cremains in an area that was special to you and your pet.
  • Plant a bush, tree, or flowers over or near the location where your pet’s body or cremains are buried.
  • Start or join a pet loss support group in your area.  
  • Volunteer your time at a humane society or other animal organization.
  • Make a donation in memory of your pet to a special cause.
  • Write a poem, story, song, etc., in honor of your pet.
  • Write down your special memories of your pet.  
  • Chronicle your pet’s life with photos and/or by keeping a journal of its life.
  • Have a professional portrait, sketch or sculpture done of your pet.  This can be done before or after your pets death.  
  • Videotape your pet doing anything and everything.
  • Keep some of your pet’s fur and place it in a locket.
  • Place cremains in a locket with animal’s name engraved on it.  (Cremains need to be sealed in airtight bag and then placed in locket).
  • Have a plaque made to honor your pet, and place it in a special spot.
  • Place a bench with an engraved nameplate and/or inscription beside where your pet is buried.

Reprinted with permission from the TIGER committee (University of Missouri-Columbia VMTH) and Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital

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